“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.” (Mark 9:2–4)
The purpose of Jesus’ transfiguration was to pull back the curtains for Peter, James, and John and give them a glimpse of what awaited Jesus and those who followed him by faith. The description in Mark expresses a glory that is unimaginable as he struggles to find words to describe what took place on the mountain. Chrysostom says that at the transfiguration, “He disclosed, it is said, a glimpse of the Godhead. He manifested to them the God who was dwelling among them.”
Despite the glimpse of the shekinah glory, there was something else coming first and the disciples just could not wrap their brain around this. On the way down the mountain, Mark tells us:
“And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”” (Mark 9:11–13)
Something had come for the new Elijah [which Jesus had told them was John the Baptist coming in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1.17)] before glory and that was suffering. John had been beheaded at the command of Herod Antipas. Jesus goes to great lengths here to not only note what had happened to John, but to connect this to himself, he too will “suffer many things and be treated with contempt.”
Here’s the important part that Jesus doesn’t want the three [or us] to miss: Suffering is not incompatible with glory. This was a stumbling-block to the disciples because they believed that suffering was weakness and weakness had nothing to do with glory, indeed weakness was the opposite of glory. As the NIV Application Commentary points out, this event helped them begin to work through this conundrum:
The text invites the interpreter to reflect on how weakness and humiliation go with power and glory. As Paul writes, “For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power” (2 Cor. 13:4).
Like the disciples, we are prone to misinterpret Jesus because of our own cultural or theological suppositions. Indeed, we may think that coming to faith in Christ gives us a pass on all the suffering that is present in the world. This, of course, is a serious error because eventually we will grind up against the shoals of pain and difficulty that inevitably lay in our wake as we go through life. David Garland captures this truth very well:
We still live in that world where earthly powers can wreak vengeance against those who oppose them with God’s word. Many Christians will suffer for their faith; others may escape. All must be prepared for wars, famines, arrests, and the siren of false prophets, who lure the elect astray as they carry the gospel to all the nations. Glory awaits them, but they must not begin the celebration too soon. Christians do not live on the mountain but down in the valley, where confusion and mayhem reign and where they must continue to joust with Satan. Yet even in the midst of suffering, God’s presence shines through. [NIV Application Commentary]
Sharing in the glory of Jesus awaits those who follow him by faith. We love to be on the mountain and experience the joys of heaven, but first comes suffering and there is no escaping that fact.